Solicitor threatened law firm in bid to have it withdraw complaint

SDT: Exceptional circumstances meant no strike-off

A solicitor threatened his former law firm with blowing the whistle on alleged breaches of its legal aid contract in a bid to have it withdraw a complaint about him, it has emerged.

Peter Maxfield Martin was suspended for 12 months by the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) for faking a director’s declaration on his reaccreditation form for the Law Society’s mental health panel and then trying to coerce the firm into telling the society that it was a misunderstanding.

The tribunal found that Mr Martin, who qualified in 1989, had acted dishonestly and without integrity in filling out the form so that it appeared Gareth Jones, a director of Gomer Williams & Co in Llanelli, had certified that the information it contained was correct.

But it said his culpability was “low” because he had acted on Mr Jones’s “implied authority”.

The tribunal found that Mr Jones had not given a direct instruction but had used words to the effect of “just get it done”, which led Mr Martin to believe he had authority to complete the form in the way he did.

“The tribunal’s impression of Mr Jones was that he was someone who had, at the time of these events, been very busy, preoccupied and irritated with the respondent…

“The tribunal found that there was degree of informality in the way he dealt with management issues. Mr Jones had accepted in his evidence that there was scope for misunderstanding on the part of the respondent on this issue.”

Further, the evidence of another solicitor showed “a pattern whereby Mr Jones would not complete the declarations himself but would allow others to do so on his behalf”, although in that case he had been given the chance to review the application.

At the same time, the SDT said a note Mr Martin had purportedly taken during a meeting with Mr Jones in which the latter supposedly gave explicit permission to “use my name” was in fact a “self-serving document produced after the event in order to support his account of events”.

Gomer Williams was aware the application had been submitted and it was only when the Law Society raised a query that the firm asked to see the form and said it had been submitted without authority.

The Law Society initially refused Mr Martin’s application and he was dismissed the following day.

He successfully appealed the Law Society decision after it agreed that he had implied authority.

Soon after being dismissed, Mr Martin wrote to Gomer Williams to say that, in furtherance of his appeal, he had been advised to be “completely frank with the Law Society about matters pertaining to the operation of both the civil and criminal contracts at Gomer Williams”.

He highlighted various alleged breaches and said he had prepared and signed affidavits to send to the Solicitors Regulation Authority and Legal Aid Agency in the event the appeal failed.

Mr Martin added: “[I] would suggest that in all the circumstances Gomer Williams would be better served by immediately withdrawing the allegation made to the Law Society on the 31st August. Perhaps on the basis of a simple misunderstanding.”

The solicitor later admitted the email was “intemperate and ill advised” but denied trying to coerce Gomer Williams.

The SDT said: “The email was not merely intemperate, which would be a matter of tone, but was threatening. It contained an explicit threat in direct response to the complaint to made to the Law Society…

“The tribunal accepted that the respondent had been angry and had not gone through with his threat, but the sending of the email in these circumstances amounted to a lack of integrity.”

The usual outcome where dishonesty is found is a strike-off. But the SDT described what had happened as a “one-off event” in which the act of completing the declaration would have taken a “matter of moments” and there had been no continuation of the dishonesty.

Mr Martin “should have taken a step back before proceeding to send a misleading declaration to the Law Society”, it added.

The misconduct was also mitigated by the fact that it was a single episode in an otherwise unblemished career.

The circumstances were “unique to extent of being exceptional”, meaning that striking off the solicitor “would be disproportionate” and instead he should be suspended for 12 months.

“The misconduct was serious and it was important to send a message to the profession that solicitors must not sign documents in the name of someone else, regardless of any authority that they may be given for doing so.”

The solicitor was also ordered to pay costs of £9,500.

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